Senate Commerce Committee Approves Wireless Privacy Bill

September 22, 2004. The Senate Commerce Committee amended and approved S 1963, the "Wireless 411 Privacy Act".

This bill, as amended, would provide that "A provider of commercial mobile services ... may not include the wireless telephone number information of any subscriber in any wireless directory assistance service database unless" it "obtains express prior authorization" from the subscriber.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), who is not a member of the Commerce Committee. It is cosponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and others. Sen. Boxer, who is a member of the Commerce, was the most active proponent of this bill during the debate.

Sen. Barbara BoxerSen. Boxer (at right) argued that contrary to the assertions of some representatives of the wireless phone industry, this is not a solution in search of a problem. She said that "the cell phone companies are creating a wireless directory". She recited various harms of a wireless directory, including stalking of children, increased costs of customers who pay for incoming calls, and the annoyance of unwanted calls.

The Committee approved an amendment in the nature of a substitute offered by Sen. Boxer on a roll call vote of 12-10. It then approved the bill, as amended, by voice vote.

This amendment adds several new provisions.

It adds a cost free de-listing requirement. "A provider of commercial mobile services, or any direct or indirect affiliate or agent of such a provider, shall remove the wireless telephone number information of any subscriber from any wireless directory assistance service database upon request by that subscriber and without any cost to the subscriber."

It adds a privacy requirement for billing information. "A telecommunications carrier shall not disclose in it billing information provided to its customers wireless telephone number information of subscribers who have indicated a preference to their commercial mobile services provider for not having their wireless telephone number information disclosed." However, the provider may disclose part of a number.

It also adds a preemption clause. "To the extent that any State or local government imposes requirements on providers or commercial mobile services, or any direct or indirect affiliate or agent of such providers, that are inconsistent with the requirements of this paragraph, this paragraph preempts such State or local requirements."

Sen. George Allen (R-VA) and Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) offered criticism of the bill. Sen. Allen pointed out that there are many wireless carriers, which do not think alike on this subject. He cited the example of Verizon Wireless. The Committee held a hearing on September 21, 2004. Dennis Strigl, P/CEO of Verizon Wireless, wrote in his prepared testimony that "we do not, and will not publish or make available our customers' wireless phone numbers for a paper directory or a directory database". See, story titled "Senate Commerce Committee Holds Hearing on Wireless Privacy" 981, September 22, 2004.

Sen. Allen argued that the Congress should not be making laws where the free market is handling the subject perfectly well.

Sen. Ensign picked up on this argument. He said that if one wireless service provider were to publish numbers in a directory, then its customers could switch to Verizon Wireless.

Sen. Ensign also argued that customers can have their numbers placed on the do not call registry.

Sen. Boxer responded that the do not call list only restricts telemarketing, and that customers incur costs when they switch service providers.

After the meeting, Steve Largent, the P/CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), commented in a release that "Fire, ready, aim is the approach the Senate Commerce Committee took today on legislating Wireless 411 service. This is a service that has yet to be introduced. The Wireless industry has a proven track record of innovation, lower prices, and protecting customers’ privacy. It is unnecessary for the government to dictate best practices on a competitive industry with such a stellar record. This is a service that many of our consumers are demanding, especially those in the small business community who have cut the cord and are totally wireless."

There is a companion bill in the House, HR 3558. However, the House Commerce Committee has not approved that bill.

See also, Senate Commerce Committee release.